Category Archives: Emerging Literacy

How to Build a Scaffold for Reading Comprehension

God bless teachers.

From what I read online, teachers and literacy tutors and interventionists are working incredibly hard to build the content knowledge required to help their students improve their reading comprehension.

It’s one thing to learn to decode the words, but quite another to understand them.

Vocabulary and background knowledge are the foundation for comprehension.

Trust me, this is a heavy lift for teachers. It’s probably the most challenging aspect of teaching reading.

Why?

Because it’s a big wide world out there and there are a lot of words.

The more a child has been exposed to in terms of language, stories, and ideas when they come to school, the greater will be their ability to understand what they read when they are taught.

The most expedient way to help our children arrive at school “comprehension ready” is to read to them regularly from the beginning.

When we do this we inspire their curiosity which makes them hungry to know more about the big wide world and all the words.

And it makes reading comprehension a breeze. It really does.

Studies on “Reading Aloud to Children, Social Inequalities, and Vocabulary Development”

The Evidence is Mounting…

Recent studies on the effects of speaking and reading to children in the preschool years confirm an important truth about where future literacy success begins.

A highly significant take-away is that poverty, lack of parental education, and even under-resourced schools, while they may be correlated statistically, are not necessarily the cause of poor literacy outcomes nor are they necessarily determinative.

This is very good news.

The more we learn about brain development in the first five years, the more obvious it is that those who care about children and literacy must focus our efforts on this period of life.

Last spring I titled my talk at the World Literacy Summit in Oxford “How the First Five Years Frame Future Literacy.”

Two studies published recently corroborated this claim.

Having spent decades teaching, I had reached this conclusion long ago. Most teachers understand that a child’s exposure to language and books before they ever set foot in kindergarten makes all the difference when they are eventually taught to read.

But research and studies are important too and difficult to ignore. So here they are.

How Do Infants and Toddlers Learn Language?

One study reported in Neuroscience News sampled over 1000 infants and toddlers from 12 countries speaking 43 languages to understand how language is learned.

They discovered that the amount of speech children hear is the “primary driver of language development.”

Not socioeconomics, or gender, or multilingualism.

In a nutshell, children who hear more speech, understand and produce more speech.

The take-away for parents? Talk to your babies.

Who Benefits from Information About Shared Reading and Access to Books?

Another study came from the IZA Institute of Labor Economics. Based in Bonn, Germany, IZA’s research mission is to “focus on understanding economic inequality, particularly the central role of labor markets and the psychological underpinnings of human behavior.”

We know that literacy outcomes have everything to do with a future skilled and employable labor force. This study aimed to discover how we can foster that.

The research team wanted to understand the impact of setting up a ‘randomized controlled trial’ of a shared book reading intervention targeting 4 year old children in socially mixed neighborhoods in Paris.

We selected a large, random sample of families and provided parents with free books, information on the benefits of SBR (shared book reading) and tips for effective reading practices.

The vocabulary of children in both treated and control groups were assessed both before and after the intervention.

Here is what they discovered:

Children from all families in the intervention group greatly increased their shared book reading frequency and improved their vocabulary.

The ‘low-educated and immigrant’ families improved their vocabulary as much as those from ‘high-educated, native families’.

Also significantly, continuous positive vocabulary growth occurred in disadvantaged families, despite the fact that these children often attended poorly resourced schools.

What Do These Studies Reveal About Where Literacy Begins?

Speaking and reading to young children before they begin school—regardless of their socioeconomic status, immigrant status, gender, level of parental education, or multilingualism—results in language and vocabulary development.

Since a child’s vocabulary is the number one predictor of school success, this is critically important to understand.

What these studies show is that if we want to have a real and lasting impact on literacy outcomes, we need to focus our attention and resources on parents and caregivers of children from infancy through the preschool years.

This is what will set all children up for success.

Holiday Book Magic!

Inspire Your Child’s Love of Reading with an Advent Book Calendar

Colored lights, candy canes, Santa’s sleigh on the rooftop, and frosted window panes…

The magical holiday season is the perfect time to create lasting memories and nurture your little one’s—or not-so-little-one’s—warm feelings about and love of reading.

Seven month old Emma’s (pictured above) and 6 year old Aurora’s amazingly creative mom, Candace @ cknp0204, shared this great idea on Instagram recently.

Here’s how you can create a meaningful holiday tradition, foster your child’s sense of joy and anticipation through the season, AND inspire their love of stories with an Advent Book Calendar.

How to Create an Advent Book Calendar

Wrap 25 books, one for each day of Advent through the month of December, and display them under the Christmas tree.

Each day of the month, let your child choose one book out of the pile to unwrap and read with you.

You can add to the fun of this daily ritual by bringing out the cocoa or popping some popcorn and making it a family reading time.

Holiday themed books add to the excitement and provide the perfect opportunity to teach about your own family’s faith or traditions. Buying 25 new books in one sweep can get pricey, so feel free to wrap library books and just add a few of your own each year.

At the end of the season, put the books away or return them to the library.

When you wrap the same books for your Advent Book ritual the next year, your child will be surprised and delighted to discover these old friends that may feel new, yet familiar, all over again.

Special holiday books that reappear under the Christmas tree each year? That sounds pretty magical to me!

St. Louis’s KMOV-TV’s ‘My Mom Club’ Loves The Invisible Toolbox!

An Interview With a Very Special New Mom and Baby Leo

I had a wonderful time recently chatting about reading and The Invisible Toolbox with the lovely and talented anchor and new mom Laura Hettiger on St. Louis’s CBS affiliate KMOV-TV’s new afternoon show My St. Louis LIVE!

Even though I’ve lived in far-away California for many years, I love staying connected with my lifelong hometown friends and happenings in this great historic city.

When I couldn’t go home to visit during COVID, I began watching KMOV’s Great Day Extra Live morning segment online.

Last year Laura announced on the show that she was pregnant, and I knew she needed a copy of The Invisible Toolbox. Every new mom or dad does, you know.

I was thrilled when she got in touch after Leo’s birth to let me know that she’d read it twice (the second time aloud to him) and invited me to come on My St. Louis LIVE! to discuss why every parent needs this information.

Practically newborn baby Leo (and furry pal Charlie) may not understand the words yet, but they do feel the love and attention from Mom when she reads aloud to them. This connection will become the foundation for Leo’s invisible toolbox, or, “the emerging internal infrastructure that will carry (him) into future learning and life.”

Thank you, Laura, for doing such an awesome job helping to get the word out about this important thing that parents need to know—-that reading aloud to your little one from the beginning is essential for their development, well-being, and readiness for school.

And thank you, baby Leo, for hanging with us even though you had to postpone your nap a little!

Laura posted this on Facebook after our interview:

What a treat getting to know St. Louis’s own Kim Jocelyn Dickson, the author of The Invisible Toolbox, on yesterday’s My St. Louis LIVE!

When I was pregnant with Baby Leo, Kim sent me a copy of her book. I read it while I was pregnant, then I read it out loud to Leo during my maternity leave. As I told Kim, things just “clicked” so much more when I was looking at Leo and reading to him.

And that’s the thing: reading to kids is so important!

During yesterday’s segment, Kim discussed why kids who have been read to already have so many tools in their toolbox once they start school.

I hope as my little Illini grows, our time reading together turns into a special time he looks forward to each day.

Thank you, Kim, for being part of My Mom Club! And to all the fellow new parents out there, grab a book, get comfy and enjoy that special time with your little one!

You can watch our interview right here.

My St. Louis LIVE! airs daily on CBS affiliate KMOV-TV Channel 4 at 3 pm CST and online at kmov.com.

Reading Comprehension: When Kids Struggle

The Missing Tools That Make Reading Comprehension So Hard to Teach Directly

Why is reading comprehension so difficult to teach?

Because it’s predicated on three tools that are effortlessly gained when a child is read to, yet harder to achieve when they have to be consciously taught.

~A large and rich vocabulary

~A well-developed attention span

~Access to a wider world (what teachers call background of experience)

These tools are prerequisites for understanding what is read.

When a child arrives at school without them, learning to read and understanding what they read can be a Herculean challenge.

Teachers know this. And they work hard to build them.

But the sad reality is that 75% of children who begin school without these tools will never catch up.

A child can be spared this struggle so easily.

Just one picture book a day results in…

~Exposure to over a million words by kindergarten.

~A well-developed attention span.

~Background knowledge that helps them understand what they read.

Then reading comprehension follows. Easily.

For a quick audio review of The Invisible Toolbox by the youth services librarian of the Westmont Public Library, find it here.

“The Invisible Toolbox” is Off to Oxford

World Literacy Summit, 2023

This spring I’ll be crossing the pond to be one of the presenters at The World Literacy Summit 2023. People from 85 countries who care about improving literacy around the world will gather in Oxford to share experiences and ideas.

If you can’t get to England, but are interested in attending, there’s good news. There’s also a virtual option for registration. You can check out all the details here.

In the meantime, if you’re curious about my talk, have a look at the overview that I submitted to the selection committee below:

“The Invisible Toolbox: How the First Five Years Frames Future Literacy”

“Neuroscience confirms that children who have been read to regularly from birth arrive at school on day one with “invisible toolboxes” full of all the pre-literacy tools that they need in order to be successful in school and beyond.  

While it’s generally understood that reading aloud to a child is a good idea, many new and expectant parents don’t fully understand why doing so in the early years is critical for a child’s academic and social-emotional development. 

What are these tools? Why do they make such a difference? How can we educate parents, in this age of distraction, to understand that reading aloud to their child is one of the greatest gifts they can give and support them in doing so? 

We will explore these questions through the lens of the research of Dr. John Hutton (Pediatrician and Director of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Reading and Literacy Discovery Center), the data of various literacy and government organizations, and my own experience as a teacher of reading and writing for decades in the elementary school classroom. 

We’ll also discuss organizations in the U.S. and beyond that are reaching into communities with limited access to books that may also have language and cultural obstacles that prevent them from filling their children’s “invisible toolboxes.” 

As I’ve begun piloting my own program to gift The Invisible Toolbox and related resources, I’ve been heartened and amazed to see what tremendous work is going on in the nonprofit sector. But there is still much to do. 

Reaching people in the earliest stages of their parenting and helping them develop their own tools so that they can pass them along is one of the greatest gifts that those of us who care deeply about literacy and children can give.”

See you in Oxford!

Potential Obstacles to Reading Aloud? Help is on the Way!

Dear Parents Part 5: Building the Invisible Toolbox with Love

When it comes to parents who may struggle to establish a read aloud ritual with their child, the same issues tend to come up. They are:

  • What can I do when my child won’t sit still for a story?
  • What if English isn’t my first language and I’m unable to read it?
  • What if this read aloud thing just feels way outside my comfort zone?

Remember André, the voracious little page-turning 7 month old reader, from previous episodes? (See picture above.) At 18 months now he’s walking and beginning to talk. He still loves reading, but he’s also on the move. Watch to see what happens when both a toy and a read aloud with dad vie for his attention!

These potential roadblocks may seem insurmountable, but they’re not. The solutions are actually quite simple. Have a look!

Subscribe to my YouTube channel for previous and future videos in the “Dear Parents” series to learn about the tools you’ll build in your child’s Invisible Toolbox when you read to them. Or, you can read about them in The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence, available at these sellers:

The Essential Ingredients for a Great Read Aloud…

And Is There a Correct Way to Do It?

I don’t believe that there’s just one right way to read aloud to your child. I do believe, however, that our motivations for doing so matter enormously.

In Dear Parents: Part 4 I discuss the two most important reasons to read. We’ll revisit André and his mom Michelle to witness those things in action. I’ll also point out strategies that André’s mom uses so naturally to engage him and create a fun experience for them both.

Have a look!

Where the Love of Reading Begins

Dear Parents Part 3: Building the Invisible Toolbox with Love

Meet André! He may be just seven months old, but already he is an active and involved “reader.”

I could not be more excited to share the latest “Dear Parents” video with you. If you’ve ever wondered whether reading to your baby from the start really does cultivate their attitude and aptitude for learning to love reading, this little guy will convince you.

You may be amazed that a baby is capable of the intensity of engagement you’ll see here. André’s ability to maintain interest, pay close attention, and even turn the pages himself is remarkable. But it’s also what is absolutely possible when a child is read to from the very beginning.

The picture book here is Bear’s Scare by Jacob Grant, and the recommended age and interest range is years 3-6. I’m guessing that the book is recommended for older preschoolers because the story has a definite plot—something you don’t necessarily find in baby books.

But at seven months André has already had quite a lot of exposure to books, so he has the stamina for engaging even with a plot-driven book.

André’s invisible toolbox is already beginning to fill. Have a look and see for yourself!

Screens vs. Laps? Neuroscience Has the Answer

Dear Parents Part 2: Building the Invisible Toolbox with Love

In Dear Parents Part 1 we explored the research proving that the years before a child enters school are critical in predicting outcomes. Here’s what we know. Every child enters kindergarten with a lunchbox in one hand and an Invisible Toolbox in the other. If a child has been read to daily throughout the preschool years, that toolbox will overflow with all the pre-literacy tools they need in order to thrive. For those who have not been read to, their toolboxes will be empty and school will be a struggle.

Busy, overwhelmed parents of infants and preschoolers may wonder if technology can assist in building their child’s Invisible Toolbox.

Many parents are indeed availing themselves of this option as evidenced in the popularity of Netflix’s most highly rated show of 2020, CoComelon. An animated streaming show of nursery rhymes and children’s songs, CoComelon is aimed at the preschool set. In 2021, it was the most-watched YouTube channel in the United States and second most streamed show in the world.

So, the question parents need to ask is this. Does it matter whether my child learns their nursery rhymes watching CoComelon on a screen…or on my lap having a cuddle?

It’s an important question and, fortunately, neuroscience has the answer for us. Have a watch:

Subscribe to my YouTube channel for future videos in the “Dear Parents” series to learn about the tools you’ll build in your child’s Invisible Toolbox when you read to them. Or, you can read about them in The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence, available at these sellers.